The Lion Who Saw His Face in the Water

The following excerpt is from a lecture by Idries Shah about the Sufi use of stories. It is a good example of how he used stories in context, in this case to explain something of the role of stories themselves - Saira Shah, Editor, The Idries Shah Anthology


I can think of no better way of beginning a consideration of stories than with a very short, true story. It describes the intricacies of dealing with stories and also with the talking and hearing process itself.

I was giving a lecture recently on the difficulty that people have in taking things in, and was considering how a story might become a person’s possession, so that it could be recalled to mind and looked at from various points of view.

'It has been noticed,' I continued, 'that much information is not absorbed because many people cannot really absorb something when they have heard it only once...'

Immediately a hand went up, and someone sitting in the front row asked me: 'Would you mind saying that again?'

This time-lag, between the presentation of materials and their integration into the thinking and
repertoire of action of the individual, has itself to be taught.

We find it easy to observe and to test in the story-telling and story-hearing atmosphere. The holistic mode of the brain will obtain certain parts, and the more literal mode others. Neither will perceive many dimensions until a skill has been developed.

This short Sufi tale is employed for the educational purpose of establishing in the mind the contention at least that one may need this time-lapse for this purpose, and it is not intended to make fun of any of the fictional figures appearing in it:


A disciple went to the house of a Sufi physician and asked to become an apprentice in the art of medicine.

'You are impatient,' said the doctor, 'and so you will fail to observe things which you will need to learn.'

But the young man pleaded, and the Sufi agreed to accept him.

After some years, the youth felt that he could exercise some of the skills which he had learnt. One day, a man was walking towards the house and the doctor – looking at him from a distance – said:

'That man is ill. He needs pomegranates.'

'You have made the diagnosis – let me prescribe for him, and I will have done half the work,' said the student.

'Very well,' said the teacher, 'providing that you remember that action should also be looked at as illustration.'

As soon as the patient arrived at the doorstep, the student brought him in and said: 'You are ill. Take pomegranates.'

'Pomegranates!' shouted the patient, 'pomegran- ates to you – nonsense!' And he went away.

The young man asked his master what the meaning of the interchange had been.

'I will illustrate it the next time we get a similar case,' said the Sufi.

Shortly afterwards, the two were sitting outside the house when the master looked up briefly and saw a man approaching.

'Here is an illustration for you – a man who needs pomegranates,' he said.

The patient was brought in, and the doctor said to him:

'You are a difficult and intricate case, I can see that. Let me see... yes, you need a special diet. This must be composed of something round, with small sacs inside it, naturally occurring. An orange... that would be of the wrong colour... lemons are too acid... I have it: pomegranates!'
The patient went away, delighted and grateful.

'But Master,' said the student, 'why did you not say "pomegranates" straight away?'

'Because,' said the Sufi, 'he needed time as well as pomegranates.'

On one level, the tales are structures, which make possible the holding of certain concepts in a particular relationship. They can sometimes help people to understand ranges of ideas which are not ordinarily linked in any other way.

Several Sufi tales in my Tales of the Dervishes which have no obvious 'point' or which are susceptible to more than one interpretation, have been observed to work by bringing into greater action the right-hemisphere functions of the brain and the attenuation of the left.

This, too, may well be the reason for such disjointed injunctions as 'Think of the sound of no sound'. The holistic overall mode cannot of course compete in sequential activity, and seems to take over when the logical one is jammed.

One of the specialities of the Sufis is to approach the needs of the student from many different directions, so that by what we call 'scatter' (a constellation of impacts), the picture ultimately comes together and he understands.

The following story might make this versatility of approach clearer:

There was once a Sufi teacher who dressed his disciples in robes of wool, had them carry begging bowls made of sea-coconuts, taught them to whirl in a mystic dance, and intone passages from certain classics.

A philosopher asked him: 'What would you do, as a Sufi teacher, if you went to a country where there were no sheep for the wool, where sea-coconuts were unknown, where dancing was considered immoral, and where you were not allowed to teach classics?'

He immediately answered: 'I would find, in such a place, quite a different kind of disciple.'

Sufis contend that all secondary ideas and things exist only to be dispensed with when a higher level is reached. This holds out the possibility of becoming quite a different type of disciple, learner or teacher.

Stories may have a testing function. The chief feature of this testing, however, is to illustrate to the person himself what some of his major characteristics of thought are. This may allow him to modify them or detach from them, instead of being their slave.

One such story – The Tale of the Sands – sometimes shows people their own dependency situation. In this tale the river, aware of its existence, runs towards the sea, but arrives at a stretch of sand, and starts to run away into nothingness, to become at best, a marsh. Terrified of losing its identity, but with no real alternative, the river allows itself to be lifted up by the wind – though only after much debate and soul-searching. The wind carries it out of danger and allows it to fall, as water, safely as it precipitates against a mountain, at the other side.

Some people love this story. For others it has all the awful quality of reminding them that they must die or that they may be being asked to choose someone or something, of whom or of which they know next to nothing, of a different kind from themselves, to submit to this and to be carried away to somewhere or something of which they have no knowledge or guarantee. Do these two reactions describe the story or the people who are commenting on it?

People exposed to this story can learn a lot about themselves just by testing its effect upon their feelings. When I did a documentary programme for British television, I told a group of children a tale which is familiar in Central Asia, and which we used in England as part of the teaching in the children’s school at our house.


There was once a lion who lived in a desert which was very windy; and because of this, the water in the holes from which he usually drank was never still, for the wind riffled the surface and never reflected anything.

One day this lion wandered into a forest, where he hunted and played, until he felt rather tired and thirsty. Looking for water, he came across a pool of the coolest, most tempting, and most placid water that you could possibly imagine. Lions, like other wild animals, can smell water, and the scent of this water was like ambrosia to him.

So the lion approached the pool, and extended his neck to have a good drink. Suddenly, though, he saw his reflection – and imagined that it must be another lion.

'Oh dear,' he thought to himself, 'this must be water belonging to another lion – I had better be careful.'

He retreated, but then thirst drove him back again, and again he saw the head of a fearsome lion looking back at him from the surface of the pool.

This time our lion hoped that he might be able to frighten the 'other lion' away; and so he opened his mouth and gave a terrible roar. But no sooner had he bared his teeth than, of course, the mouth of the ‘other’ lion opened as well, and this seemed to our lion to be an awful and dangerous sight.
Again and again the lion retreated and then returned to the pool. Again and again he had the same experience.

After a long time, however, he was so thirsty and desperate that he decided to himself: ‘Lion or no lion, I am going to drink from that pool!’

And, lo and behold, no sooner had he plunged his face into the water than the 'other lion' disappeared!

There was no special intention of spreading this story as a psychological support or therapeutic tool for parents with fearful children. But I got a good many letters after the TV film was shown, saying how parents had been able to use the story to reassure various youngsters who had fears of the unknown or of unfamiliar situations. It is true that these tales are told to children in the East, instead of the more gruesome ones which are often found in Hans Andersen and the Brothers Grimm; and no doubt there is a gap which could be filled here. They would be useful to children, and certainly entertain them, as we have found for many years.

The stories have become something of a rage in schools and partly through BBC educational broadcasting, laying down a stratum of interest which results in constant enquiries and callers from all over the place.

But there is no instant application of the stories as a sort of magic wand, or even as some kind of band- aid dressing.

The stories, as a body, and correctly used, offer a remarkable way into another way of thinking and of being. If they are considered only as individual items to add to a repertoire, for therapy or for any other instantly obvious purpose, they lose much of their usefulness.

I have made the whole, holistic body of material available. I would ask you not to be satisfied with imitations. These are characterised by crypticism on the one hand and telling you what you want to hear on the other. No form of education I know about does that, but cults do.

I can do no better than to quote at this point Rumi, one of our greatest masters: ‘You may have a magic ring – but you must be a Solomon, master of invisible powers, to make it work.’

No account of teaching-stories can be really useful without a recital of some of these tales without any explanation at all. This is because some of the effect can be prevented by an interpretation; and the difference between an exposition and a teaching-event is precisely that in the latter nobody knows what his or her reaction is supposed to be (from any doctrinal standpoint) so that there can be a private reaction and a personal absorption of the materials.

The Sufi practice is to take a number of tales and ask a group of people to look at them. They then have to note down the points which interested them in the stories. Instead of magnetising themselves upon those points, they have to set them aside, and look at the points that did not catch their attention, and ask themselves why they missed these. What censorship or lack of understanding was operating? People first make their notes separately, then study them in unison, so that everyone taking part is possessed of all the reactions of the others.

In this way a mosaic is built up, people all contribute, one to the other’s understanding. Now a Sufi teacher goes through the results and indicates the points which nobody has noticed, which are then fed back into the minds of the group, which is able to add to its individual and collective knowledge the material which it could not provide from among its own members. When this process has been completed, one may expect a dramatic improvement in the understanding- capacity of all the people involved.

This is what we regard as proper teaching and learning. First you do what you can. Then you profit from what others are doing, and they from you. Finally you get the additional element which was absent from your own knowledge stock, provided by your teacher.

My published collections of tales in themselves constitute teaching-frames which make it possible to deal with some of these barriers oneself, but the existence of a teacher is central to the whole enterprise. There are limits beyond which the familiarisation and feedback system ordinarily employed in study cannot operate without the active assistance of an instructor who is a real, not a self-appointed, one.

Sufis do not insist on the primacy of the teaching function because they want to, but because they must. It is, indeed, the Sufi’s objective to render the need for a teacher obsolete. But first he or she must make available the information and the methods which are not to be found yet, for practical purposes, among the generality of the people who want to learn.

The Sufi enterprise, in which the stories can play an essential part, is to operate in areas which have been neglected. This is the Sufi contribution towards the vision of a better world.

(Abridged from A Perfumed Scorpion)